PHOTOS: Ryan Black
Model Unit+ an interview with Megan Bickel of houseguest
houseguest is a new player in Louisville’s contemporary art landscape and provides both a unique mission and location. As an artist-run gallery, it promotes exploration, openness, and creative freedom; artists are encouraged to interact with and activate houseguest’s unconventional space. Visitors are literal houseguests, as the gallery is located in the living room of artist Megan Bickel and chef Jacob Wilson. This is an unusual art experience - one that Cincinnati-based architecture studio Team B capitalizes on in their current exhibition.
In the site-specific installation Model Unit, Team B depicts living room decor of the archetypal young, trendy, and upwardly mobile millennial. It is the kind of space one would encounter on IKEA Ideas or Pinterest boards. Team B, however, has crafted each item out of cardboard and positioned their work within a larger conversation regarding targeted consumer goods and gentrification. As the architectural group explicates in their statement, “Marketing imagery and ‘model units’ are staged and filled with stock entourage to imply a certain lifestyle, and thus, a desired tenant. In this way, architects as visualizers of un-built work are complicit with gentrification - projecting imagery that appeals to specific socio-cultural consumers.”
Team B has imbued many of their cardboard simulacra with humor that ranges from absurdism to acerbic character analysis. It is peculiar to see common household objects created solely out of cardboard, including stairs, potted plants, a duct, and even a guitar. The viewer is challenged by strange verisimilitude; familiar objects in a familiar setting become disoriented by the shift in material. Absurdity reaches its apex in Amazon Box 1 (2018) and Amazon Box 2 (2018), a recreation of the online retailer’s ubiquitous packages. The prices, $77.36 and $38.99 respectively, prompt the viewer to wonder what was purchased and then remember that these pieces are devoid of actual merchandise. Team B carefully curated a number of faux vinyl records that range from Bon Iver’s self-titled album to Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan to Wu Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Similarly, cardboard books like Paleo for Beginners by John Chatham and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk populate shelves on the wall. These items offer a hilarious character portrait on a specific subset of young people. While the decor and belongings suggest trendiness and style, they are ultimately superficial. Model Unit does not depict an individual’s room, but instead a stage for the ideal domestic space to be projected upon.
The materiality of cardboard signifies both cheapness and migration. Many of the specific items that Team B replicates, such as those from IKEA and Urban Outfitters, are often poor quality despite their high price tag and trendy marketing. Developers similarly see low-income neighborhoods as an opportunity for profit, inflating prices and thus uprooting long-withstanding communities. Gentrification is inescapable for Team B, whose offices are located in Cincinnati’s heavily developed Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. It can be seen throughout Louisville as well, such as South Louisville where houseguest is located, but perhaps most spectacularly in NuLu, the East Market District. Model Unit bridges issues between the two cities and asks Louisvillians to examine the gentrification in our own city.
Ultimately, Model Unit challenges its viewers to carefully consider ethical consumerism and gentrification. As I walked through the exhibition, I thought to myself, “I know ‘this person’ all too well - I’ve seen homes exactly like this.” I was immediately implicated, however, by IKEA Melltorp Table, white (2018): the exact dining room table that I recently purchased for my apartment. I had to step back and reconsider my own relationship to the nexus of issues that Team B engages with in this exhibition. With insight that belies its initial novelty, Model Unit asks viewers a critical question: do we continue to gentrify neighborhoods in the name of “progress” or do we find sustainable and ethical solutions to the influx of young professionals moving into cities?
I interviewed Megan Bickel, artist and founder of houseguest, to find out more about the project’s inception, mission, and future goals.
How did houseguest come to be?
HOUSEGUEST was founded in January of 2017 by artist Megan Bickel and her husband, chef, Jacob Wilson. Its location is within the living room of the couple. The location, though frankly placed within the home out of financial necessity, also serves as a proper representation of the projects’ philosophy: anything for everyone.
I’ve always had an interest in curation as an artistic process, or curation as collaborative installation; utilizing the space as a medium as much as the work that is being displayed. Our corresponding project: SUPPERCLUB was designed to integrate collaborating chefs from around the region into our community. We encourage artists to interact with and activate the space while exploring new ideas and concepts, with full control over what they create. We encourage chefs to create a menu that is challenging, thoughtful, creative, and above all else; made with love.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of nontraditional art spaces?
There is infinite potential for collaboration, inventive exhibition design, and generation of exploratory and experimental work while lacking the pretense of the traditional white-cube gallery. Then there is the hope that individuals who may not typically participate in gallery culture may feel interested or simply safe to participate because of the approachable nature of the ‘house as space’. These two ideas, when combined, mean that you can theoretically have a dynamic, thoughtful, and challenging exhibition whilst attracting a broader audience; two things that can at times be a struggle for traditional spaces to tackle simultaneously. It’s proof that you can have challenging work that everyone can and should be comfortable exploring.
The primary downside of running a nontraditional space is the lack of funding. Primarily, this is an issue because we cannot afford a stipend for artists’ materials and we can’t afford to cover costs of travel for artists coming from out of town. When your mission is to create a space where artists (often times marginalized or emerging) can feel protected to do and say whatever they need to say, you feel ethically motivated to assist them financially. After all, I am an artist myself and a I’m, obviously, in support of paying for art and the labor of artists.
How does SUPPERCLUB fit within the overall mission of houseguest? How do art and food work in tandem to produce a unique experience?
SUPPERCLUB holds the same goal of collaboration and creation of opportunity through space provisions as houseguest. We want artists and chefs to have a space to create something that challenges its’ audience in a healthy and productive way— and we want this opportunity for experience to be possible for anyone. In fact, the name houseguest refers to the act of inviting artists or chefs into our home to make something as much as it refers to the public that is invited in on the experience. It’s not clear to me yet how art and food can work in tandem. I’m certain that they do, but I think it’s too early in the project for me to make any valid claims.
What I can speak to is the experience of watching people discover each other. When guests attend SUPPERCLUB they appear to be thrown out of their comfort zone. They are in someone else's home (most of the participants have been complete strangers) whilst being aware that that rooms’ purpose isn’t personal space— it’s a public space— so socio-culturally speaking, it’s an idea that’s a bit awkward to navigate. They then begin the meal seated at a table filled with, again, strangers. No one knows what to expect, but through the shared new experience of eating food and consuming visual stimuli, they become bonded. There is laughter and discussion and critique. It’s my experience that art and food are both fuels in representing our shared humanity—they symbolize our need to communicate and our need to share ourselves through the things that we create. So, to summarize, they work well next to each other. I’m just not sure if they collaborate, yet.
Between the gallery name, its location, and the bi-monthly SUPPERCLUB program, houseguest feels welcoming in a way that many contemporary art spaces do not. Does this allow for a wider breadth of visitors to engage with art?
It’s certainly our hope and goal. Equal opportunity experience is a philosophy that I find really integral to Jacob and I’s approach to our respective fields. This being said, I think that inclusivity is a goal that is sometimes unobtainable because a party that we wish to include or make to feel welcome simply isn’t interested in participating. Which is fine, too. Your audience will find you. I just don’t want to run a space that makes it harder, for the artists, chefs, or viewers to participate.
The space in which art is encountered often informs the viewer's perception. Model Unit is a perfect exhibition for houseguest and I don't believe it would elicit the same reaction in a white cube. Do you plan on addressing the particular location moving forward?
I’ll be completely transparent with you, Model Unit being a representation of a living space fielded completely from Team B. We approached them in hopes that they would come up with an exhibition discussing gentrification and displacement (which is simultaneously a local issue and a topic that they tackle within their designs). They then decided designed the installation— which they wanted to be completely immersive—so of course it needed to be to scale.
We don’t so much address the location or the fact that it is our home in the future. For us, the location is something that is financially viable, challenging, and fun. We do interact with the architecture. The windows and limited wall space force us to be a little bit more creative with installation design.
What does houseguest have to offer Louisville's art community? How do you differentiate yourself from other galleries? (Besides the location, of course)
I’m saying this as somewhat of an outsider as I’ve only lived here for a little over a year, but it’s my perception that in an effort to be as supportive of artists as possible we have actually over insulated and created a bubble for ourselves. Bubbles are limiting because you can’t see outside of them; and we seem to not be looking at what is happening outside of here and it’s limiting the kinds of ideas that we can grow from. Though we will be continuously exhibiting local artists, I will always work to integrate or introduce work that is from outside of Louisville— the world is too small to be that regionally agoraphobic.
It is crucial that our community have these conversations - about gentrification, about localness, and about accessibility. Model Unit is displayed at an important moment and offers much to say about each of these and, importantly, bridges issues of gentrification between Cincinnati and Louisville. By integrating artists from outside the city, houseguest illustrates that Louisville can only grow from broadening its horizons.
Model Unit is on display at houseguest until May 5.
houseguest is located at 2721 Taylor Boulevard, Louisville, Kentucky 40208 and open Saturdays 10a-1p or by appointment.
Kevin Warth, Contributor to Ruckus